'Literacy action plan' could see the commission's findings included in CfE

Eradicating illiteracy has cross-party support, but getting politicians to agree on how to achieve it is proving more difficult

Elizabeth Buie

Education secretary Michael Russell is to establish a "literacy action plan" which would see many of the findings of the Literacy Commission, set up by Labour more than a year ago, incorporated into the Curriculum for Excellence.

But even if last week's Labour-sponsored debate on literacy at the Scottish Parliament achieved cross-party support on the overall aim of eradicating illiteracy, it revealed that politicians are still at odds on how to achieve it.

Labour wanted literacy to become the "number one priority" in education, over and above the Curriculum for Excellence and the concordat agreement between national and local government. But Mr Russell preferred to make literacy "a first-cause issue for how we operate and work in Scotland".

Des McNulty, Labour's education spokesman, wanted attention focused on children in the birth-to-three age group, citing health research suggesting that disadvantage had a physiological impact on the body, affecting not only health but brain development. He became embroiled with Mr Russell in a predictable spat over whether P1-3 classes needed to be cut to 18 to achieve good literacy results.

On a more consensual note, Mr Russell told MSPs that he had asked the CfE management board to meet the Literacy Commission, so the Scottish Government could embed its recommendations in its curricular reforms. At his request, the commission is to meet Graham Donaldson, the outgoing senior chief inspector of education, as part of his review of initial teacher education.

In another move announced this month, Mr Russell said literacy should form part of the extra day of continuing professional development teachers would be given.

The Conservatives would not budge from their stance that the way to raise literacy levels was through rigorous national testing by P7. "Most teachers are anxious that there be considerable improvement in the testing process to ensure pupils are tested against identified nationally-agreed criteria," said Liz Smith, Conservative education spokeswoman.

Rhona Brankin, Labour's education spokeswoman at the time the Literacy Commission was set up, pressed Mr Russell to accept its benchmark of functional literacy as equating to "a midpoint between levels C and D in the 5-14 programme".

Mr Russell said the fact that the Literacy Commission was meeting the CfE management board meant its recommendations were now being taken into the system. "Even if there is no willingness now, although I believe there is some willingness, we are ensuring that the potential exists for that to change," he said.

Kenneth Gibson, SNP MSP for Cunninghame North, suggested that everyone in primary and secondary schools - from the janitor to the headteacher - dedicate 10 to 60 minutes a day to private reading.

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Elizabeth Buie

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